Revised, Updated, Somewhat More Optimistic Thoughts on Depression and Solitude

Being an introvert does not mean being a hermit.

woman alone in window seat
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece about depression and solitude, in which I talked about a particularly troubling and annoying conundrum of being an introvert with depression. That condundrum: I like lots of alone time, and I like being a person who likes lots of alone time — but when I’m in a more depressed state, or a state that’s more vulnerable to depression, too alone time is bad for me, and I need to make sure I have a fair amount of social time every day. A lot of people responded strongly to this piece: I seem to not be the only one dealing with this. And among the many people who commented, saying some version of “OMLOG yes I totally get this,” my friend David Byars shared the piece on Facebook with this comment (quoted here with his permission):

I came to a similar conclusion at the end of June, which is why I reactivated all my social network accounts. I need to have the option of communicating with people, I need to know how friends and family are doing. And I need to know when to give myself a break from both society and solitude. And, as an introvert, the need to take breaks from solitude seems disconcerting.

Emphasis mine. “I need to know when to give myself a break from both society and solitude.” Reading this was like a lightbulb going on over my head.

Being an introvert does not mean being a hermit.

I’m finding this “depressed introvert who needs social time” thing a whole lot easier to deal with if I look at introversion, not as a clearly-defined either/or category, but as a spectrum. (This view also has the advantage of being accurate.) Being an introvert does not mean not wanting human company at all. Being an introvert means being closer to “introvert” on the introvert/extrovert spectrum. Liking lots of alone time doesn’t mean wanting to be alone every minute of every day forever. It means… well, it means liking lots of alone time. It means liking more alone time, and being comfortable with more alone time, than most people.

Therefore, needing the company of other people somewhat more than usual right now doesn’t mean I’m not an introvert anymore. It just means that the place on the introvert/extrovert spectrum where I’m currently comfortable is a little further from the “introvert” end than usual.

Or, to be more accurate: It means the range of “how much alone time is good and pleasurable for me” is a lot narrower than usual.

feet on balance beam
I’ve written before about a depression analogy I’ve found useful — the analogy of seeing mental health as a balance beam, suspended over a pit. When my mental health is more robust, the balance beam is wider — more like a catwalk, or a bridge, or a platform. When my mental health is more fragile, the balance beam is narrower — more like a tightrope, or a… well, a balance beam. When my mental health is more robust, I don’t have to be as careful with my self-care. I can watch more TV, eat more sweets, get less sleep, have more time to myself. I have more wiggle room. When my mental health is more fragile, on the other hand, my self-care routines need to be a lot more rigorous. I have to be more watchful about my mental and emotional condition, more self-conscious about exactly how I’m doing and what exactly I need right at that moment. The healthy range for a whole lot of things — too much food versus not enough, too much sleep versus not enough, too much work versus not enough — is narrower, and I have to calibrate it more carefully. I don’t have nearly as much of a cushion.

What does this mean for my introversion, and for time alone versus time with other people? Well, it doesn’t mean that the amount of alone time I’d like to have has decreased. It means that the amount of alone time that’s safe for me to have has decreased. Even more accurately: It means that the “alone time/ social time” balance that works for me and is safe for me is a lot narrower. When I’m feeling pretty healthy and pretty robust, I can handle fairly long stretches of being alone, and I can handle fairly long stretches of time around other people, without being propelled into a depressive state. When my mental health is more fragile, when the balance beam is narrower, I have to be more cautious, both about alone time and about social time. Too much isolation can depress me; too much social time can exhaust me, which can also depress me. To some extent that’s always true — but when my mental health is more fragile, that balance beam is narrower.

This sucks. It kind of sucks no matter what. But it was sucking more when I was feeling like my precious precious alone time was being robbed, like I’d finally come to some understanding and acceptance of my introversion only to have it snatched away. It is sucking less now that I’m realizing this isn’t really true. I still get to have alone time. I still get to be someone who likes alone time, and is comfortable with it. I just need to give myself breaks, not only from society, but from solitude. That’s always been true; that hasn’t changed. It’s just a little more true now than usual.

I can live with that.

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Coming Out Atheist
Bending
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Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

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Revised, Updated, Somewhat More Optimistic Thoughts on Depression and Solitude
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3 thoughts on “Revised, Updated, Somewhat More Optimistic Thoughts on Depression and Solitude

  1. 1

    This sucks. It kind of sucks no matter what. But it was sucking more when I was feeling like my precious precious alone time was being robbed, like I’d finally come to some understanding and acceptance of my introversion only to have it snatched away.

    I had a similar thing when I first started using exercise as a treatment for my depression.

    After exercising for a while, my baseline energy levels went up significantly. Suddenly I wanted to do stuff more. It was weird at first, because it felt like I was losing my identity as an introvert. But what it did was change the way I thought about introversion.

    To me, introversion is about how I gather energy. It says nothing about how I choose to expend that energy.

    At the risk of sounding like Chopra: Wherever I expend my energy, my sense of self follows. If I expend that energy outwards, I become more connected with the world. If I expend that energy on excercise or cooking, I become more connected with my body. If I spend that energy on reflection (writing, reading, videogames, television), I come to inhabit my mind.

    But if my mind is beating itself up, then inhabiting my mind is a bad place to be. It’s like having an abusive relationship with myself, but the worse I feel (or the more empty I feel) the worse it gets. Investing my sense of self in something other than my mind breaks the cycle. But I can’t do that by will alone. I have to expend the energy in order to do it.

    The biggest problem is when I’m beating myself up to the point that I can’t gather the energy to actually invest anywhere. That’s when I ask for help, but also when I’m least likely to take the initiative to ask for help. I’m very lucky to have people in my life I can call on and who will check in on me when I need it. I rarely get that low these days, maybe only once or twice a year. But those people are lifesavers when they pull me out of a nosedive.

    Hmm…. That took a turn away from where I thought I was going, but I think I’ll leave it.

    I’m glad to hear you’re thinking has taken a turn to a more optimistic place Greta. 🙂

    ::offers consent for virtual hug::

  2. 2

    I’m an introvert too, quite close to the ‘introvert’ end of the spectrum. I don’t have clinical depression but I do show some depression-like symptoms in times of stress. I have always considered solitude a break from social interaction, but I’ve never considered social interaction a break from solitude. What a very valuable insight.

  3. 3

    Thanks for keeping up this series on introversion!

    Although I don’t have depression, at least as far as I know, I have noticed that I tend to have depressive-type behaviours when I don’t spend any time around other people. Just sitting around not accomplishing anything. I find I do much better when I’m forced to interact a bit, just to have a reason to put on pants in the morning, you know? Even if all I need to do with my day is writing a bit and cleaning my apartment, I’ll get far more done if I’ve scheduled an appointment in the morning, or gone out to buy something, or even walked to a coffee shop rather than made my own.

    As appealing as it seems, I think if I spent my time in a Thoreau cabin all I’d do is read other people’s stuff instead of making anything of my own.

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